March 31, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
NEW YORK - The worst injury of all hit Michigan State at the very end.
More painful than plantar fasciitis, sprained feet, double blisters, a strained wrist and a broken hand combined, it was delivered with three daggers from the free-thrown line after senior guard Keith Appling was called for his fifth foul while defending the 3-point field-goal attempt of Connecticut's Shabazz Napier with seven seconds showing on the shot clock.
Napier would make all three foul shots to clinch the NCAA Tournament East Regional Championship in Madison Square Garden Sunday and Appling would watch the final 31 seconds of his career tick away from the bench. The 60-54 loss ended Spartan dreams of a seventh trip to the Final Four under coach Tom Izzo and MSU's third National Championship to go with those earned in 1979 and 2000.
And, Izzo's 13-year streak of having every four-year player reach the national semifinals has come to an end with Appling and teammate Adreian Payne, the graceful 6-foot-10 power forward who was hounded relentlessly by two or three Huskies defenders every time he set up on the low block.
The broken hearts will eventually callous over, but the ache will remain long after the plague of ailments that afflicted the Spartans all season heal once and for all.
Sitting in front of his locker with his face buried in his hands, Appling quietly recounted the sequence following his hopeful layup off the high glass - his only two points of the game - that reduced UConn's lead to 51-49 with 2:38 remaining and a pair of Payne free throws with 58 seconds to go.
The Spartans were still within two points when Napier and Appling squared off in the backcourt, stationary as chess pieces as the red digits above the backboard ran down. Napier finally made his move, Appling countered with an outstretched hand, the referee's whistle sounded, the ball missed the rim.
"I thought I had ball, but the ref didn't think so," Appling said between deep breaths. "I watched enough film that I knew when he was going to shoot the ball. I put a hand up and the whistle blew. It was just hard to believe. I honestly didn't think they would make a call like that that late in the game."
The tight wrist that deprived Appling of competing for prestigious individual honors, along with scoring at the high rate he established in the first half of the season, cheated him to the very end.
"The Final Four meant a lot to me and to my teammates as well," he said. "To be so close to getting there and come up short just hurts so bad. Words can't even explain it.
"I just feel like I let everybody down; we let everybody down."
Branden Dawson, the sublimely athletic forward who came back from his hand injury to reenergize MSU through its first six post season games - three en route to the Big Ten Tournament title and three in the NCAA tourney - wiped his tears with the front of his jersey as the Spartans' final possession began to unfold.
Payne managed a smile and a hug for departing senior walk-on Dan Chapman, who banked in his first career 3-pointer which served as the final period on the 2013-14 season.
"As the game got closer and closer to ending, (the Final Four streak) was on my mind a lot, every huddle," Payne said. "For us losing and Keith and I not to make, it is disappointing. Being my senior year, it's tough to go out like this when we were so close to achieving our goal."
Michigan State entered the season with such a potent blend of talent and experience, inside and outside firepower and unique match-up advantages provided by Payne and Dawson, it eventually ascended to the No. 1 spot in the national polls.
At the end, it all unraveled under the stress of too many fouls, too many turnovers, too many poor shots and too little time to become completely whole again.
The Spartans missed eight of their first nine shots as Connecticut built a 10-point lead. Michigan State closed the first half with a 23-9 run and was up by four at the break. And, the Spartans increased the lead to nine points on a heavily contested jump shot by sophomore guard Gary Harris and two more jumpers, including a 3-pointer, by Payne.
But UConn charged back. Actually, the Huskies did much of their damage while standing still. Eleven of UConn's points during its backbreaking 26-7 run came on free throws.
"We just made too many mistakes early in the game," Appling said. "We turned the ball over and it just led to easy baskets for them. From that point on, everything was going their way until we finally made a run.
"But it took so much out of us to make that run, it almost seemed like we didn't have enough left to get over the hump."
Michigan State committed 16 turnovers that led to 18 Connecticut points. Long gone where the halcyon days of November, December and early January when MSU's assists were so high and the giveaways so low - the Spartans had a minus 3 assist-to-turnover ratio (13-to-16). Meantime, UConn converted 21 of 22 free throws to Michigan State's 7 of 8.
Payne's fitness level never really returned to the level it was before being sidelined by foot issues, and though better, it was a lot to ask of a big man to recover in time from Friday's physically taxing regional semifinal win against No. 1 seed Virginia, which ended after midnight.
It will be weeks before Appling's wrist is back to normal, despite Izzo's overly optimistic, if not wishful, semiweekly updates. Although the Spartans had rounded back into remarkable form in the previous nine games - including the first two in the NCAA Tournament in Spokane, Wash. - with everybody back, the synchronization and precision that carried them to a school-record 18-1 start never quite returned.
"I felt bad for Keith, and I thought Payne was getting killed down low, so that was frustrating for him," Izzo said. "I love Keith's fight and fire, but it was really hard on him. He just couldn't do half of what he was doing. He's hung in there, he hasn't complained about it, he dealt with it. I'm not sure I could have done as good a job as he did."
The interest compounded on a season's worth of maladies came due against UConn.
"We just didn't seem mentally as sharp as we needed to be," Izzo said. "We started out poor and we looked drained. I think it was the season, then the travel of the Big Ten (Tournament in Indianapolis) and then out to (Spokane) and I think we just kind of wore down.
"Maybe it wasn't our time, our turn."
Izzo has called this the toughest season of his career because of the constant jerry-rigging of lineups and uncertainty that confronted the Spartans on a daily, if not hourly, basis.
"When it's all said and done, we'll sit down and talk about what they really went through," Izzo said. "It was an out-of-body experience. I can't tell you how hard those (weekly) press conferences were. Now that it's over I can at least say that.
"I was always feeling like I was half-lying to you and half-not-telling you and half-making excuses. I was so sick of it, I didn't even want to show up to a few of them because I didn't know what to say. But it was way worse than what I did say, and for that I give them a lot of credit. I can't tell you how much they had to put up with as far as grinding it, grinding it, grinding it."
The outcome stupefied Izzo because Michigan State played good enough defense, while holding Connecticut to 34.7-percent shooting from the floor (17 of 49), and rebounded well enough, 32-30, to win most games.
"I'm disappointed because you don't get many opportunities to do this," Izzo said. "This was a special group because of what they went through. I will beat myself up for a week on why we laid an egg. In some of our worst games I thought we looked better than we did today."
After leading MSU with 22 points against the Huskies, Harris echoed Izzo's sentiments on the Spartans going down without giving their best effort.
"We've overcome a lot of adversity this season," Harris said. "Nobody in the country's been through what we've been through and for us to put everything together here in the tournament, win the Big Ten Tournament and be one game away from the Final Four - it's not a moral victory but we went through a lot and to be one of the last eight teams standing, that does say a lot.
"It's hard for us to be part of the team that contributed to the (Final Four) streak being broken. It's tough. This is what we've been working for all season. We didn't come out like needed to come out. They did everything we knew they were going to do, but it was on us for not playing up to our ability. That's the toughest part. Give all the credit to UConn..., but if we come out with the right mindset and we execute down the stretch, then we're playing in Dallas on Saturday."